The Road to Wisdom (part one)


During the summer of 1986, I set out with a group of cyclists on a 250-mile tour of the Montana countryside. Youth for Christ organized the five day, round-trip tour starting and ending in the city of Missoula. The circuitous route took us through some of Big Sky Country’s finest scenery. We followed the Interstate for about 50 miles before turning south on Highway 1 heading to the town of Anaconda. Each day we rode about 50 miles, far enough for us to enjoy the tour without wearing ourselves out. Two sag (supply) wagons followed us, hauling luggage, supplies, first-aid kits, tools and accessories, and spare bicycles. The sun beat down on us the first two days of the trip, and the sag wagons relieved us from the high heat with shade, water, and snacks.

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A mix of riders and bicycles joined the tour. Sexagenarians rode with teenagers. Racing bikes peddled side by side with mountain bikes and rickshaw bicycles with bulbous tires that looked as if they were featured in a vintage 1950s film. I rode a Schwinn Traveler touring cycle that I had bought for this kind of tour.

We rode in groups of five to six about ten minutes apart. Traveling in small groups helped us get acquainted and support each other if needed.

The leisurely ride to Anaconda and relaxation we enjoyed there on the second day lulled us into a false sense of confidence that the rest of the tour would be easy. More than a third of the journey lay behind us, and we were well-rested and ready, we thought at the time, to tackle whatever lie ahead. Nature has a way of humbling even the most confident. We woke on day three to heavy clouds so laden with moisture that they dragged on the ground and covered the highway in mist, an early indication that the day was going to be harder than the last two. Our guides warned us to expect difficult riding conditions. We left Anaconda dry and were accosted by a downpour half an hour after departure.

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I refused to let the rain get the best of me. I climbed hill after hill, pedaling as fast as I could to the top, coasting down the other side, and then catching my breath for the next challenge. The drizzling rain cooled me down. If I could beat the rain, I told myself, I was not going to let the terrain hold me back. So intent was I in conquering these obstacles that I misplaced my group and found myself riding alone on a lonely stretch of highway.

Another cluster of cyclists rode far ahead of me, and I sped up to catch them, but I never caught up. I continued my roller coast ride over hill after hill. Each time I reached the top, I surveyed the landscape for signs of life. The group ahead was nowhere in sight. Fog made visibility more difficult. Except for small patches of grassland and forest, fog banks covered the mountains and valleys in sheets of gray.

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The other group was somewhere ahead, so I picked up the pace and rode on for a couple hours until I reached the end of the road. Highway 274 ended at the junction of Highway 43, and I had to turn left or right to reach our next destination at Wisdom, a small town about 50 miles south of Anaconda. The junction did not have any road signs to indicate direction or distance, and I did not have a map. I was not sure which direction to turn. If I made the wrong decision, I could end up lost and separated. I thought about stopping at the junction and waiting for someone to pass by, but I decided to press on because I was cold, wet, tired, and hungry. Rain fell in sheets, soaking my windbreaker and biking shorts. My shoes felt like concrete. I decided to turn right and ride west. Our route, after all, took us west all the way to the Idaho border. I prayed that I had made the right choice and kept going.

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The Giant Swing


September 25, 2011

My family and I paid a visit on September 25 to Sao Ching Cha, also known as the Giant Swing.

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The free-standing structure stands in front of Wat Suthat temple in the middle of a busy traffic circle on Bamrung Muang Road in central Bangkok. Built from tall teak wood beams with an ornate wooden crown on top, it stands more than 30 meters high (almost 100 feet) and looks like an inverted goalpost.

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Sources indicate that the original Giant Swing built in 1784 by King Rama I was used to celebrate the year’s rice harvest, to thank the Hindu god Shiva for a bountiful crop, and to ask for his blessing on the next one. The Swing is based on a Hindu epic that tells the story of Shiva’s descent to the Earth; its pillars symbolize mountains, and its base depicts the Earth and the seas.

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During an event known as the Swing Ceremony (Triyampawai), Brahmins would swing on a platform suspended between the pillars of the Giant Swing and try to catch a bag of silver coins dangling from the Swing with their teeth. The ceremony, performed during the reigns of King Rama I and Rama II and again from 1920 until the early 1930s, was discontinued after several fatalities occurred. The swing was renovated in 1920 and 1959; its most recent incarnation was dedicated in September 2007.

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On our way to the Swing, we walked from Wat Saket (also known as the Golden Mount) about 1.5 kilometers along Bamrung Muang Road in the Banglamphu neighborhood of Bangkok. One of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, Banglamphu has some charming and historic buildings. Unfortunately, the area where we walked was gritty, chaotic, and forgettable.

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Another 1.5 kilometers on the same road takes you to the Grand Palace and Wat Pho, two of Bangkok’s most prominent and popular sites. We decided to cut our journey short at the Giant Swing in midafternoon and to save the palace and temple for another day. The hot, muggy day had left us exhausted and tired of touring.

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What should be a pedestrian-friendly thoroughfare that links major attractions, Bamrung Muang Road is actually an exercise in accident avoidance for tourists who opt not to travel by taxi or tuk tuk. We walked on narrow sidewalks along streets choked with cars that spewed smoky exhaust and dodged vehicles fighting to make their way through heavy traffic. We abandoned Bamrung Muang Road after one block and fled to a side street. Although this street was just as busy, idling traffic dampened the noise level.

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I enjoyed browsing shops that catered to local tastes. One shop sold fans galore, another oversized Buddhist icons that reminded me for some reason of FAO Schwarz, and another was crammed wall to wall with old compressor components, dirty rags, and newspapers. I was surprised that anyone could navigate through a place so jam packed with stuff.

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Banglamphu looked as if it had seen better days and had deteriorated into one of the poorer areas of inner city Bangkok. However, it was not a slum by any means.

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For those adventurous enough to get lost in its labyrinthine streets, one can find some hidden gems, such as antique furniture stores and artisanal shops, lurking in the shadow of some of the city’s most popular attractions. The neighborhood is definitely worth a visit.

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Koh Kred, Thailand (part two)


The water level rose higher the farther we walked and flooded the market on Koh Kred. We assumed the corridor where we were walking would reclaim the high ground and pressed on with bare feet, wading through the water until we reached dry ground again. I enjoyed the exotic feel of wading through floodwater; my son and wife did not share my enthusiasm and fretted over whether critters lurked in the water waiting to nip their toes or infiltrate their bodies. I was reassured by the flowing water that it did not carry waterborne diseases common in stagnant cesspools. Just to be safe, I gave my son a piggy back ride through the water, much to his relief.

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We crossed two more flooded areas. Again on dry land, we dried our feet and put on our shoes. The floodwater was a novelty but distracted us from shopping in the market, a sentiment likely shared by other visitors around us judging by the empty shops with nary a shopper. Performers dressed in ethnic Thai garb entertained a nonexistent crowd at a small outdoor theater. The water held their potential audience at bay.

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Water overtook the corridor again, and we waded into it one more time. The flooding was more extensive here. We wandered through the flooded corridor for a few minutes vainly searching for dry land, but none was in sight. My wife and I decided to turn around and head for lunch instead. We had had enough of the submerged market!

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We stopped at a riverside restaurant on stilts jutting into the Chao Phraya River. Delicious Thai food simmering in trays wafted from a small counter in the middle of the restaurant. I played it safe and ordered pad Thai, the quintessential Thai dish; my son ate his usual fried rice with shrimp; and my wife chose pad see ew, a noodle dish she’s taken a liking too since she arrived in Thailand. The restaurant staff cooked our meal in the dining area not far from our table. About fifteen minutes later, we were feasting on a cheap, delicious Thai meal overlooking the mighty Chao Phraya.

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A giant gold Buddha more than 25 meters tall sat cross-legged across the river from us in of Koh Kred Island. The Buddha is a most prominent feature of Wat Bangchak temple on the northern bank of the river. The beautiful Buddha meditated serenely with his hands pressed together in prayer at the edge of the flowing river, shining ever brighter amid the deep greenery.

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Ferries from felucca-style boats to something out of the African Queen traversed up and downriver to drop off or pick up passengers. A few fishing boats skimmed the water with underpowered motors in search of abundant fish churning the water as they jumped to catch insects on the surface. We sat next to the water and looked down at the cauldron of fish below us.

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After lunch we waded back through the water to higher ground protecting the island’s largest temple, Wat Paramaiyikawatworawihan, from flooding. The sun fried us from all sides, from the heavens and to its reflection on standing pools of water. We tried to enter another market known selling for Monam Lai Wichit terracotta pottery, but the floodwaters barred our way. We aborted our shopping trip and vowed to return after the rainy season ended.

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As we waited to take the ferry back to the urban sprawl of Bangkok, we indulged in one more helping of coconut ice cream, and I filled out a survey for a group of Thai students who wanted to improve their English. The day ended with an unfulfilled shopping trip and more than our fill of aquatic adventure.

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Koh Kred, Thailand (part one)


September 3, 2011

My family and I recently moved to Bangkok, Thailand. Our inaugural outing took us to Koh Kred, also known as Ko Kret, an island in the Chao Phraya River in the Pak Kret district of greater Bangkok. It was a fun but wet adventure.

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Created in 1722 when the Thais built the Khlong Lat Kret navigation channel, Koh Kred is the home of a popular form of terracotta pottery known as Monam Lai Wichit and a peaceful atmosphere far from the buzz of nearby Bangkok. A Buddhist temple, Wat Paramaiyikawatworawihan, dominates the northeastern part of the island and features a unique pagoda, Chedi Mutao, that leans over the river as if inspired by the Tower of Pisa.

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The temple (wat) is one of several dotting the island influenced by the Mon (Raman), and ethnic group that preceded the Thais in the Chao Phraya delta region and flourishes between the 6th and 10th centuries A.D. (The other temples on the island are Wat Phailom, Wat Saotongthong and Wat Chimphi.)

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The Mon, who are prevalent among the island’s inhabitants, run many pottery and souvenir shops and stalls in Ko Kret’s markets. One village on the eastern side of the island known locally as the “Koh Kred Pottery Village” is supported by the Thai government’s “One Tambon One Product” (OTOP) local entrepreneurship program. (A “tambon” is an administrative subdistrict. OTOP-style programs are popular in Asia.)

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We took a ferry from the western bank of the Chao Phraya River to the island at Wat Sanamnau. We should have known what lay ahead after wading through muddy waters that washed over the ferry gangway. Flooding on the Chao Phraya River had raised the water level a meter higher than normal, foreshadowing a soggy visit to Koh Kred. Ferry operators overloaded the boat with tourists, whose weight caused the boat to list and elicited startled gasps from trepid Western and Thai passengers. I surveyed the river as the bloated wooden ferry struggled to cross over to the island. The river was swollen and churned brown with silt and debris floating from upstream. The lush green landscape fed by heavy rainfall was interspersed with rambler houses bedecked with orange Asian tiles crowding either side of the river. A few more meters of floodwater would have submerged the entire area in a murky soup.

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The boat dumped us on a metal gangway superheated by the morning sun. Barefoot from traipsing through the water at Wat Sanamnau, I did an involuntary “hot, hot, hot!” dance on the pier until the crowds subsided and let me pass to shore, where I could put on my shoes. My family and I wandered briefly through the Wat Paramaiyikawatworawihan temple grounds as the sun beat down on us. I admired the mixture of ornate Buddhist architecture with traces of Mon influence most apparent in facades of some wooden structures.

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Snapping photos and video, we stopped to enjoy some delicious coconut ice cream before wandering into the covered market. (The ice cream was a concoction of vanilla ice cream, sticky rice, and processed coconut milk.)

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Stalls turned to shops in a covered area flanking the north side of the island. We browsed the stores but did not buy much. I purchased an over-the-top faux Thai “silk” shirt for a few dollars while my wife sampled and bought delicate Thai desserts made from boiled egg yolk and other confections.

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Our disinterested son bumped along with us and zeroed in on some items he thought might make good toys, but the shops at Koh Kred didn’t make many products appealing to young boys.

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As we walked along an elevated corridor about two feet above ground, we noticed that water had flooded shops with floors at ground level. The shop owners did not seem to mind standing or sitting in water and were more preoccupied with making sales to the few visitors who had braved the flooding. Accustomed to the flooding, the vendors tended displayed their wares on tables in standing water as if it did not exist! Some of the wealthier shop owners installed raised flooring that helped keep their stores dry.

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Click here to read part two of our adventure on Koh Kred Island.